Poverty provision at center of fight over bail constitutional amendment

SANTA FE (KRQE) – It’s a fix to the bail bond system Democrats and Republicans agree needs to be made to the state’s constitution, but another provision tied to that change is causing a big fight.

Currently under the New Mexico constitution, judges can only hold a criminal defendant without bail for 60 days. In many cases, judges will have to give defendants, who would likely be a danger to the community, an incredibly high bond to keep them behind bars.

Proposed constitutional amendments in the House and Senate would change that, SJR 1 and HJR 13, but a key difference between the bills is leading to an early dispute.

Both constitutional amendments would allow judges to hold a defendant considered such a threat to the community that no bond or release conditions would be enough to reasonably ensure safety. The House version HJR 13, co-sponsored by Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, would also require that the person not be considered a flight risk.

“It’s really important that we do what we can to protect the community and make sure the people that ought to be incarcerated are incarcerated,” said Ruiloba.

“There’s been several cases like that where we let repeat offenders out and they do something a little more drastic,” said Adkins.

But the Senate version SJR 1, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, does something else. It requires that in any case where the defendant is not considered a danger and can not afford to post a bond, that the defendant must be released.

“You shouldn’t hold someone that’s not dangerous just because they can’t afford bail,” said Wirth.

That bill, which came out of the interim committee process, has the support of the courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys, but has earned opposition from the bail bond industry which fears the poverty provision in SJR 1 could put them out of business.

“Those businesses would be shut down if that second part were to go through,” said Adkins.

For now, both sides seem fairly dug in. Wirth calls the poverty provision a key part of what he terms a “package deal”. HJR 13 moved out of its first House committee on a 4-3 party-line vote but still has another committee before it could get a full House vote. SJR 1 has not been heard yet.

“This bill’s the clean bill,” said Adkins.

“Our version has gone through multiple changes and compromise and it is a compromise,” Wirth said. “When groups sit around the table and they come up with something that works for this huge array of interests, that’s certainly what I tend to think should pass.”

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